Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have a great article on global poverty, presenting their research on what the poorest people in the world actually spend their money on, and whether there is a nutritional poverty trap.
In short, they question whether there is. Basically, few people in the world today are starving… food is pretty cheap these days, and people at the lowest end of the scale, if given extra money, don’t spend it all on food. Or to be more precise, rather than improve their nutrition a bit, people are likely to buy simple luxuries (a TV, a cel phone), or spend money on festivals and celebrations, or just buy tastier food.
It’s not that there isn’t desperate poverty, or that these choices are always top notch— the authors suspect that people are often not well informed about what a little better nutrition might get them or their children. But it’s interesting to know that, so to speak, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not a strict progression… people want some of everything before they’re fully fed.
Edit: The comments on the article are completely stupid. The point is not that the global poor act irrationally. They’re human beings and they make choices. It’s not irrational to want a cel phone, or to decide that instead of more rice you’d like a bit of meat sometimes.